With François Fillon, is Europe handing over the keys to Russia?
Henry Stanek / Dec 2016
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
French conservative party Les Républicains has found its candidate for next year’s presidential elections. Emerging victorious from the party’s primary elections, François Fillon, former Prime Minister, will most likely be facing Front National’s Marine Le Pen in next year’s presidential elections. The repercussions of either of them clinching the Presidency are deeply feared not only in France, but also across the European Union.
Both Fillon and Le Pen have espoused strong pro-Russian views and share similar attitudes towards resetting relations between the European Union and President Putin. Fillon has been unfalteringly pro-Russian for years even before he threw his hat into the pool of presidential hopefuls. He has condemned the French and American bombing campaigns in Syria, and has argued in favour of a “natural alliance” with Russia. Fillon also was dismissive of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, arguing that eastern Ukraine practically belonged to Russia owing to its Russian-speaking population. Le Pen and Fillon are united in their demand that the punitive sanctions placed on Russia after the invasion of Crimea be lifted, arguing they were counterproductive in that they only caused Russia’s attitudes and behavior towards Europe to harden, while damaging France’s economy.
All of these policy statements are overshadowed by what appears to be a close personal relationship between Fillon and Putin. French media outlets have reported that Fillon was a guest at Putin’s dacha in Sochi, and President Putin himself has referred to his “very kind personal relations” with Fillon. Meanwhile, Le Pen felt comfortable enough to turn to Russia in order to finance her electoral campaign, and received a financial injection through a small Czech bank with opaque connections to the Kremlin.
With Fillon’s nomination secured, France is but the latest domino to fall in line with other pro-Russian European countries whose voices are growing louder. Be it Hungary, Bulgaria, Greece or even Austria, the European Union’s common front against Russia – already weakened by Brexit – is crumbling at an ever-faster pace. However, thus far, none of these countries carried enough weight within the EU to cause the consensus on how to engage with Russia to break. But now, no matter who becomes France’s next President – Fillon or Le Pen – if their vision becomes reality, a radical departure from this consensus can be expected.
These events unfold at a time when Russia’s clout in Europe is growing beyond policy pronouncements or rhetorical tricks. Moscow has realised that there’s at least one aspect where economic ties can be bolstered, sanctions and all: its nuclear diplomacy. And shockingly, Russia’s desire to build nuclear power plants in European countries seem to have found an unlikely ally in the European Commission. The latest controversy revolves around Hungary’s Paks II nuclear power plant, which came under fire when the Hungarian government failed to comply with EU public procurement rules by awarding Russia’s Rosatom the contract to construct two more reactors at the site.
But in an unexpected plot twist, the Commission decided on November 24 to let Hungary off the hook, but it did so amid allegations that former Energy Commissioner Oettinger had broken ethics rules by visiting Hungary’s Viktor Orban by using a pro-Russian lobbyist’s private plane.
Notably, this happened despite the European Parliament’s inquiries into unresolved questions relating to the Paks II project, suggesting that a cross-pollination between Europe’s pro-Russian bloc and the European Commission has already begun to take place. By closing the investigation, the Parliament’s concerns were effectively overridden and suspicions sparked that the Commission is making a series of compromises with Russian energy interests in Europe. Considered the weakest European institution, the Parliament often sees its position undermined by unilateral decisions taken by Commission officials. And it seems as though the Commission is winning.
As a result, the EU’s ability to counter Russia’s expansion into the energy markets of member state is called into question. Lithuania, for example, has held serious reservations about Rosatom’s construction of a nuclear power plant in Belarus’ Ostrovets region. Only 50 kilometers away from Lithuania’s capital, the power plant is suffering from major safety issues, such as collapsing structures on the site, and is believed by Vilnius to be in violation of the United Nations Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context. Attempts by Vilnius to restrict future energy imports from the plant were shot down by the Commission, arguing that doing so “wouldn’t be an effective leverage to implement higher nuclear security and safety standards in power plants outside EU.” Moreover, the Commission has been unwilling to act on the Parliament’s calls to “include the issue of safety and transparency of this nuclear power plant” in its dialogue with Belarus and Russia.
The fact that many EU member states have called for a rapprochement with Russia threatens to exacerbate Europe’s already shaky ability to restrain Russian activities in the EU’s neighborhood. With either Fillon or Le Pen in the Élysée Palace come 2017, the EU’s foreign policy rebalance can only continue. What’s more, the European Commission’s apparent willingness to compromise in the face of Russia’s expansionary ambitions plays right into the hands of these reactionary views, and undermines the European Parliament as a voice of reason in Brussels. In order for that voice not to be drowned out, the European Parliament should be strengthened as an institution as it is slowly emerging as the last bulwark against further Russian encroachment. Otherwise, EU leaders will lose all incentive to stand united against an increasingly assertive Kremlin.